cover image The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age

The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age

Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin. Holt, $30 (368p) ISBN 978-1-62779-005-5

By placing stunning scientific advances into historical context, this engaging biography of Nobel Prize–winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–1954) captures the life and times of one of the 20th century’s most creative and hard-working scientists. Husband-and-wife authors Segrè (Ordinary Geniuses), emeritus professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania, and Hoerlin (Steps of Courage), a former Philadelphia health commissioner, quickly construct a captivating image of Fermi, addressing such elements as his love of hands-on work and his long friendship with fellow student and practical joker Franco Rasetti. Drawn to theoretical physics, Fermi helped advance quantum mechanics from mathematical abstraction to experiment, yielding a clearer picture of the atom and explaining beta decay—the Nobel-winning work that laid the foundations for nuclear physics and the modern device-dependent world. The authors describe how Fermi and Laura, his Jewish wife, sought refuge from European fascism and anti-Semitism in the U.S., where Fermi’s efforts produced the first nuclear chain reaction and fueled the Manhattan Project. Segrè and Hoerlin draw an engaging portrait of a man with boundless curiosity who delighted in his work; fans of pop science and history will thoroughly enjoy this entertaining and accessible biography of a scientist who deserves to be better understood. (Oct.)